Wounds of A Friend
by THE BUFFALO GALS
"How long you think you're gonna be?" Chris Larabee asked his good friend Vin Tanner.
Vin, a few years younger than Chris, shrugged his shoulders non-committedly, "Two... three weeks at most."
Chris nodded, "You should be back for when the drovers hit town then."
"Yeah... won't be nothin' to stop there for..."
"How can you be so certain?" Ezra Standish asked sharply. "What experience, may ah ask, do you have with silver mines?"
"'Bout the same as you, Ezra. They mean hard work and dirt..." Vin smiled at the man sitting on the horse next to him,
"Two things that strike fear into yer heart."
"That's why we're taking him." Ezra indicated to JD who was just riding up the street, leading a very un-cooperative mule.
"Why am I in charge of this?" JD grumbled, cursing the animal loudly.
"'Cause I ain't leadin' it." Vin replied simply, "Ya wanted to come with us..."
In truth, JD was the only one of the group who'd shown any enthusiasm when Ezra had won the map showing the whereabouts of an old silver mine, during a poker game. The others had scorned at the idea of Ezra's when he'd told them he was going in search of it, but JD saw it as a chance to add another chapter to his life and expand his knowledge of the west. His eagerness had buoyed the gambler up and Chris had recognized that neither of the younger men would be any use to anyone until they'd gotten the mine out of their system. He told them to go and look for it. The problem was, neither of them knew the Cerrillos Hills.
Vin Tanner did, so he'd offered, under duress, to take them there, explaining that once they arrived, he wouldn't be joining in the search for the precious metal. Mining was as uninspiring as farming according to Vin; hard work for little profit unless you struck a mother lode. It placated Chris to know that Vin would be there. Ezra and JD were an unlikely combination. Neither could be trusted to stay out of trouble.
As the three men turned their horses to begin the journey, Chris called out his usual warning to Vin, "Watch your back!"
Vin waved a hand to him. The trip would be an easy few weeks as long as Ezra and JD didn't send him crazy. Vin liked peace and quiet as he traveled. He doubted he'd get either on this journey.
Buck limped out of the saloon and called to them as they passed, "Take care, and do as Vin tells you, JD!"
The youngster muttered something incoherent, already regretting volunteering for the trip. He shouted to the poor pack animal trundling behind him, "Come on stupid. They'll be out of the territory before we get out of town!"
Larabee ambled over to Wilmington, his oldest friend, grinning impishly, "Think they'll kill each other?"
"Ha!" Buck laughed loudly as he swung an arm around Chris' neck, propelling them into the saloon. "No, I think Vin'll do for 'em both and bury them in that goddamn mine!"
"Wish you were goin' with them?" Chris asked, knowing what the answer would be, having seen Buck's yearning glances every time the trip had been mentioned.
"Sure do, if only to watch the fun and games." Buck replied, cursing Don Paulo, the arrogant young Mexican he'd dueled with when protecting Inez. They'd used rapiers, a weapon unknown to Buck and for most of the fight he'd come off worst; the blade slashing against his chest, legs and arm. Though he'd won the battle, the injuries had incapacitated him enough for Nathan to negate any idea of him leaving town until he was recovered.
They walked over to the bar and ordered two beers then went and joined Nathan and Josiah in a friendly game of poker.
"Ezra, what'cha doin'?" There was more than a tinge of exasperation in Vin's quiet voice.
"You told me to make a fire." Ezra snapped back, "And Ah told you Ah am not comfortable with this wilderness nonsense."
"Then why d' ya come?" JD asked as he carried his saddle over to where, hopefully, the campfire would soon be burning.
"This is mah enterprise... it could make me... us... a fortune." Ezra's eyes sparkled like jewels at the thought of finding a rich vein of silver. Gold would be preferable, but would Maude be proud of her son; the owner of a silver mine.
"Well, to get there, ya have to eat and to eat, ya need a fire to cook the food, unless ya fancy raw rabbit!" Vin replied, holding up the poor unfortunate creatures that were about to become their supper.
He knelt down next to the gambler, "Where's the kindlin'?"
"Kindlin' . It starts the fire, then ya put on bigger sticks and logs. And ...." Vin passed Ezra a boulder, "Ya circle the fire with these. Keeps the fire safe and the heat in."
"That's the most Ah've ever heard you say, Mr. Tanner... Mr. Wilderness Man!"
Ignoring the none too cruel jibe, Vin stood up, saying, "Make the fire... or..." He pushed the rabbits under Ezra's nose, "Skin these and get 'em ready fer cookin'."
"Kindling ... yes." Was Ezra's reply as he stared the dead creatures in the eye.
Growing up in the city himself, JD had some sympathy for Ezra, but he was also aware that they needed Vin to get them to the mine. "Don't rile Vin..." He whispered to the gambler, "I don't aim to get lost out here."
"You of so little faith." Ezra scorned, standing up and dusting off his pants. "JD, what does kindling look like?"
"Set 'em up again, por favor, Senorita!" Buck said, indicating to the four empty beer glasses on the poker table. He gave her one of his most dazzling smiles. It was unnecessary. Since he'd defended her against Don Paulo, Inez had become his number one fan, though she had the good sense not to tell him that. It was better to keep him on his toes.
"Si Senor..." She smiled sweetly, "I will bring them over to your table."
"Gracias!" Buck tipped his hat to her, then returned to his companions.
Chris was enjoying the peace and quiet of the moment. Since the three young men had left town, things had gone smoothly. The outlaws must be on vacation, because the most trouble they'd had were a few drunken cowboys.
"Wonder if they've struck silver yet." Nathan pondered as the cards were dealt to him.
"More than likely struck each other!" Chris replied drolly.
The game continued peacefully; too peacefully for Buck. He was missing the younger men, especially his sparring partner JD. Unlike Chris, he wanted things to liven up; the town was asleep!
"Wonder if they're having as much fun as we are right now." Josiah mused as he picked up the card dealt to him by Chris.
"Wish I'd gone with 'em." Buck grumbled, scowling at the card dealt to him, "I'm out." He threw his cards into the middle of the table. "Have you been takin' lessons from Ezra?" he queried Chris.
Chris' blue eyes crinkled and he smiled evilly, "That would be tellin'." Throwing another card to Nathan his smile dropped when the healer said,
"I'm in and I'll raise you fifty cents."
"Fifty cents! Nathan, you're too rich for me."
Buck started to laugh, holding his chest because the laughter was making it hurt.
"What's so funny?" Chris asked, wondering if the quietness was sending Buck deranged.
"Funny! Us! Playin' fer nickels and dimes! If Ezra was here, he'd be appalled."
"Yeah, well, we don't all live by Ezra's heady standards. I need money for repairs t'the cabin..."
Nathan nodded in agreement, "I could do with equipment for my clinic."
Josiah looked heavenward, "What do we need, Lord...? Ah, yes, the roof needs finishin' off... Thank you, Lord."
"Good God Almighty! Listen to you! Soundin' like normal folk..." Buck was horrified, he dreaded to think how he'd end up if the others didn't come home soon. Then again, when he thought about it, Ezra was still striving to buy his own saloon, after failing to hold onto the Standish Tavern, and JD was becoming more enamoured with Casey each time he saw her.
The only light was Vin. Like Buck, he had no attachment to anyone. Unlike Buck he didn't spend most of his time chasing the ladies. Of course, Vin didn't realize most of the young and some of the not so young women didn't need chasing. One look at the blue eyed, quiet spoken, gentle young man and they were hooked!
Wonder Ezra hasn't become his manager, Buck thought, not unkindly. At least Vin wasn't competition for him, Maybe we ought to go out on the town together.
Now that was a promising thought. The females of the species would be like bees round a honey pot. Buck was quite adept at attracting the women, and with Vin by his side .... he rubbed his hands in anticipation...
"Buck... Buck...!" Chris thumped his friend on the arm, "Whose bed were you in then?"
"Hhmmm... what?" Buck frowned, only half listening; still thinking about his new found best friend, "Vin..."
"Vin!" All three men looked at him with a mixture of humour and horror.
"What?" Buck still didn't understand.
"You were thinking about Vin... In that way?"
"Huh... What way?"
"Soddom and Gomorra.." Josiah said, shaking his head, while smiling his toothy grin at Buck.
"Who? Hell boys, what y'all goin' on about?"
"I asked you whose bed you were in just then when you were daydreamin' with that sappy look on your face..." Chris chuckled, "And you said Vin."
"I was thinkin' 'bout Vin, but not like that. Good God, boys what kinda man do you think I am?" Buck blustered.
"The turnin' kind.." Josiah answered solemnly.
Chris and Nathan spluttered in their beers; it was getting too much.
"That's it!" Buck stood up, mortally offended, "You three sittin' there, countin' yer dimes, dreamin' about yer... borin' future... Cain't ya see what the town's doin' to you?" He started to limp towards the doorway, but stopped when Judge Oren Travis walked in, slapping most of the trail dust from his clothes.
"Mr. Wilmington, I was hoping to buy you boys a beer."
"As long as you don't get borin' on me, judge... I've had enough today."
Perplexed, the judge was about to ask Buck what he was talking about, but then thought better of it. The seven men he'd hired to protect the town were a strange mixture, but it was working, that's all that counted. He took hold of Buck's arm and led him back to the table. Inez was there within seconds, producing more cold beer for them all.
"Didn't expect you in 'til next week, judge." Chris said as he stood up and dragged another chair over for the older man to sit at.
"Wasn't due... but, somethin' came up..."
"Damn, knew it was too quiet..." Chris smiled, "Don't suppose we're involved?"
"Sorry boys, but your vacation is over..." Oren glanced around the shadowy saloon, "Where's the rest of you?" He'd expected to at least see the gambler sitting at his usual table.
"The boys are off playin' with a silver mine. I didn't think we'd need them for a few weeks." Larabee explained, "We don't, do we?" he asked, his head tilting to one side.
"No, shouldn't think so... it's just that there's an army payroll comin' through town next week. The soldiers'll be stayin' overnight, so the money'll be deposited in the bank..."
"Surely the soldier boys can protect a bank for one night!" Buck asked before sipping on the cool beer.
"They can... but, they won't know if there are any new faces in town to watch out for. You will... All I ask is if you see anyone suspicious, lock 'em up before they can do anything. You can always release 'em once the soldiers are long gone." Oren explained simply, having thought it out on the long arduous stage journey he'd just endured. "I'll be back the day before they're due, in case you need any legal back-up."
Josiah leaned forward and asked the judge in his quiet, lilting voice, "Are you expectin' any trouble, judge... or are you just edgin' your bets?"
"Covering all possibilities ..." The judge finished his drink off, then stood up, "I'll be leavin' once the team's been changed. Better go and say hello to my family or I'll be in big trouble." He wandered over to the saloon doors then turned back to the four men,
" Remember boys, keep a good look out..." Then with a sudden thought, "Chris, what silver mine? "
"Up in the Cerrillos Hills. Ezra won a map..."
"How long they been gone?"
"Seven days ... why?"
"Nothin'... I hope they strike it lucky..." Oren turned back to the door and walked out, giving them a backwards wave.
"Wonder what that was about?" Josiah looked at Chris, having heard the same worry in the judge's voice.
Buck hadn't, "He's just mad cos he ain't got the seven of us runnin' round for him."
"He did hire seven men." Nathan pointed out, "Though I s'pose he cain't stop any of us from leavin' when we want to."
"Damn right! We didn't sign no papers!" Having sat back down, Buck thought he might as well stay there, "Deal me in... I could win a fortune!"
"How much longer do we have to travel in this inferno, Mr. Tanner? Ah am becoming a pool of... perspiration."
"Sweat, Ezra. It's called sweat." JD corrected Standish. He was getting fed up with big words being thrown at him. At least he knew what perspiration was. His mother had told him that only the gentry perspired. Working folk sweated. Ezra was a lot of things, gentry wasn't one of them.
Vin, riding just ahead of them, smiled to himself. It wasn't often Ezra was corrected on the English language. None of them knew about Vin's secret. Not even Chris. It was too humiliating. He could neither read or write, that's why he spoke so little and listened so much. He actually found listening to Ezra very stimulating, though like JD, he didn't always understand the southerner. He slowed the big black horse up and waited for the others to catch him up.
"Let's take another look at the map."
Ezra handed the faded piece of paper to him, "Are you sure you're reading it properly, Mr. Tanner?"
"Think ya can do any better?"
"No, Ah bow to your greater knowledge, but it does seem to be taking a long time to arrive at our silver lined destination."
While he was listening to Ezra's whining, Vin searched the horizon with his spyglass, smiling as he saw something in the distance.
"Whatcha seen?" JD asked with his usual bouncy enthusiasm. The heat wasn't going to beat him.
Vin showed him the map, "Here... the two hills. One sittin' right behind the other."
"Yeah... where are they?" JD peered into the distance, but the heat haze was making everything merge together.
Vin pointed right between his horse's ears, "'Bout forty miles."
"'Bout noon tomorrow. I ain't pushin' the horses just for a bit of shiny metal."
"Shiny metal! Mah friend, that could buy you the world."
"Don't need the world, Ezra... just my name to be cleared..." Vin handed the map back to the gambler and put the spyglass away, "Silver cain't do that." He kicked the horse forward, "I'd like to be through the canyon 'fore nightfall. We can make camp the other side."
Ezra followed, leaving JD to entice the increasingly mulish mule to break out of a slow walk.
"I ain't leadin' this thing on the return journey." He complained loudly. He was not surprised to be ignored by the two men trotting off in the distance.
The journey was nearly at an end. Vin should be happy, but there were niggling doubts in his head as they entered the valley that lay between the two hills. The old man had told Ezra that no one knew about the mine. The map had been in his possession for many years, given to him by an injured Navajo Indian in exchange for food and water.
During the journey, Vin had kept his doubts about the actual existence of the mine, to himself, thinking that for once in his life, Ezra had been conned by a better con man. But now he wasn't so sure. Apart from the map being so accurate there were also signs of horses and wagons in the vicinity recently.
A cold shiver ran down his spine, like a warning. His instincts, honed to perfection after spending much of his young life as a hunter and tracker, told him to turn around and forget the stupid mine, but would Ezra and JD follow him?
Ezra's mind was already full of silver and how to spend the fortune, once he'd acquired it. And JD was caught up in the same heady dream.
Vin of course, could leave them, his work was nearly done and as he'd told Ezra on many occasion during the trip, he wasn't a miner and he wasn't about to learn a new trade. Ezra had offered to share his spoils with him, if Vin helped, but the tracker couldn't be bought by the promise of wealth.
Vin sighed as he wiped the stinging sweat from his eyes. Maybe silver couldn't buy him, but friendship and honour could. There was no way he'd leave Ezra and JD. They were bound together on the adventure, wherever it went. But, a warning might just give Ezra some doubts. Vin turned to his companions.
"Now why have we stopped?"
"Just to warn you, I ain't happy about this."
"Mr. Tanner, your skepticism is boundless. I sometimes wonder how you function as a pathfinder."
"Huh?" Vin was curious about Ezra's words, but the time wasn't right to ask. "Ezra, I ain't joshin'. I think we're ridin' into trouble... maybe I should go take a look. You two stay here."
"Ah really don't think so." Ezra replied, suddenly becoming serious, "If your concern is genuine it will be more judicious if we stay together."
Green eyes met blue in mutual understanding. Vin nodded, "We'll go. JD, you stay here."
"Do as I say." This time, the haunting blue eyes stared down a pair of rich brown ones, "I mean it JD. I don't want to be worryin' about ya. If ya hear or see anything untoward, high tail it outta here..."
"Always bein' treated like a kid."
"Then start acting like a responsible adult, Mr. Dunne. " Ezra replied edgily.
He couldn't, wouldn't believe things were going to go wrong now, not when they were so close, but if Vin's instinct told them to be wary, then he'd abide by that. He trusted the young tracker; saw in Vin a quiet honesty and integrity he'd never encountered before. It was refreshing, working with someone like Vin and to have him as a friend. A true friend, not one that used Ezra for their own nefarious purpose, or, the gambler thought guiltily, the other way around.
"How do we play this, Mr. Tanner?" He asked after they'd been riding for a while.
"Accordin' to the map, the mine entrance is on the east side of the valley. Best we dismount and climb on up those rocks over there... should be able to get a good view of the mine and surroundin' area. "
"Ah...! So, suddenly you believe in mah mine?"
"Has to be somethin'. There are wagon tracks goin' in..." Vin pointed out the easily visible wagon tracks.
"What! This is mah mine. How dare anyone trespass on it."
"Ezra, you don't have no deeds to it, just a crazy old man spoutin' on about it and a map. Hardly makes ya the owner."
"We'll see about that!" Ezra replied haughtily as they trotted over to the rocks.
They left the horses in a shady, grassy area at the base of the rocky incline then began to climb. Vin was sure he could hear voices in the distance; then there was the distinctive sound of a rifle shot. He moved faster; Ezra slowed down. Maybe owning a silver mine wasn't such a great idea. By the time he reached the tracker, Vin was lying down on his belly, peering over the ridge. He pulled Ezra down to the ground unceremoniously.
"You make an easy target."
Vin passed him the spyglass, "Take a look fer yourself."
Below them was the mine. A working mine. As Ezra scanned the workings he hissed angrily, realizing why Vin was so upset. The mine was being worked by men, women and children, of different race and colour. But what caused Ezra to curse under his breath was the fact that the workers were shackled.
".Slaves..." Ezra whispered, "Dear God.."
He took another look at the sight below. There were at least ten gunmen, guarding the place. Ezra suspected there were more actually inside the mine, watching over the workers.
"Well, Mr. Standish, are you goin' to go down there and stake your claim?"
Ezra squinted at Vin, "Ah think that would be imprudent at this moment in time. In fact Ah suggest we leave here with great alacrity."
"Leave those people to suffer!" Vin was horrified at the suggestion. He thought he knew Ezra better than that; he did.
"Ah mean to go and get help. Ah'm not that heartless, Vin."
Vin glanced away guiltily, " 'Sorry. Yer right. It's just... those children... they're just babies.."
Ezra scrambled to his knees and placed a comforting hand on Vin's shoulder, "Ah know how you feel. But for once Mr. Tanner, Ah am giving out the orders around here..." He couldn't trust the younger man not to go off on a foolish no-hope rescue mission, "and Ah say we go for help."
Vin reluctantly agreed. Ezra was correct. There were too many men for the three of them to take on.
They carefully made their way back down the hill to the horses only to find several men waiting for them, their guns drawn.
"Howdy boys." One of the men said as he indicated for Vin and Ezra to drop their weapons. "Nice view up there?"
Vin refrained from answering; he was angry at himself for getting caught so easily. He was their guide and tracker for God's sake! What was he doing making such a basic error? At least Ezra still had his pop gun hiding up his sleeve, but what good would that do. There were six men surrounding them, the gun would only take out two, leaving the remaining four to shoot the prisoners! Their only hope of escape now was JD. Vin silently prayed that the youngster would have the good sense to go back for help.
"Mah companion and Ah are lost. We thought it circumspect to take a look from a higher vantage point, to discern if we could..."
"Shut up!" the spokesman and probable leader of the group growled at Ezra. "Ain't he a dandy, boys?"
Ezra stood perfectly still while the man circled him, touching his fine, though extremely dusty clothes and made unkind remarks about his masculinity.
"Don't think we're goin to get much work out of this one, boys. But him..." He walked over to Vin, "He has potential.."
"I don't know Charlie, he's got long hair... and he's perty, like a girl!"
Everyone laughed at that remark, though Charlie eyed Vin warily, sensing a dangerous element in the younger man.
"What's your name, boy?"
"None of your business."
Vin crumpled as the man thumped him in the stomach with the butt of his rifle.
"Never speak to me like that again, boy. If you know what's good for you."
Charlie returned to Ezra, "You got a name?"
"Ezra Standish..." The gambler wasn't going to suffer like his friend just had.
"And him?" Charlie pointed to the tracker as he struggled to his feet.
"Vin... Don't know his other name..."
"Thought you were friends?"
"Ah lied." Ezra glanced at Vin and hoped his companion would play along with him, " I hired him as a guide."
"May Ah?" Ezra indicated that he wanted to extricate something from his pocket.
Charlie nodded. His boys had already searched the men for any concealed weapons.
"Thank you." Ezra pulled the map out and passed it to Charlie, "We were looking for that."
"Guess you found it."
"Guess we did... But Ah can assure you, our lips are sealed. What we saw today meant nothing to us. We were just about to leave..."
"Were. You ain't now. We need more hands to work the mine. You and pretty face'll make a fine addition to the workforce."
"Ah don't really think so. Ah have no idea how to work a mine. Ah am a gambler sir. Mah talent lies in the cards. That's how Ah won the map..." Ezra smiled at Charlie, "Which of course you may keep..."
"Shut him up Charlie, he's givin' us a headache."
Charlie, a tall, heavyset man, with weather beaten face, unholstered his gun and placed the muzzle of it between Ezra's eyes, "I don't want to hear another word from you, fancy pants, keep your strength for the work." He moved to one side, "Now you and blue eyes get walkin'. Chuck, bring their horses."
"A word of warnin'; you make one wrong move and I'll shoot you in the back. " Charlie cautioned the two prisoners as they walked by him.
"Why pretend not to know me?" Vin whispered to Ezra as they were marched down to the mine.
"They cannot use our friendship against us if they have no knowledge of it," Ezra answered in the same dull whisper.
Vin accepted that it was a sensible idea, until they reached their destination, when a young, familiar voice called out,
"Vin, Ezra! I was hopin' they wouldn't find you." JD, his face covered in bruises was already having the chains attached to his legs.
"Dammit!" Vin cursed, their hope of rescue fading by the second. "How'ya get caught?"
"I heard riders comin' out of the pass. Thought it was you. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late." JD lowered his eyes, "Sorry Vin."
"Don't be, I'm to blame fer this."
While the three men were having their leg irons fitted, they scanned the area. The mine and its workings were to the left of them. The few people that were mingling about there were in a sorry state. They looked malnourished and exhausted. Vin couldn't take his eyes off the children. How could anyone do this to a child? It was beyond his comprehension.
Ezra was affected just as badly, but refused to wear his heart on his sleeve. If the thugs that ran the mine found a weakness in him, they'd use it anyway they could, which would only mean more heartache for the children.
There were a few shacks to the right and behind them. Probably where the gunmen slept. The horses were corralled in what looked like a box canyon. The poor mineworkers themselves seemed to have few amenities.
"This is a living hell." Ezra said to no one in particular as he watched broken spirited men and women shuffle by, their eyes dulled by fatigue and starvation.
"Vin, we gotta do somethin'?" JD said plaintively.
"No. We have to wait. Chris and the others will come lookin'."
"Mr. Tanner is correct. If we try to escape these people will suffer."
Surprised by Ezra's change in attitude JD said, "Ezra, they can't suffer anymore than they already are. I'd like to meet the bastard that's runnin' this place!"
"Then you'll get your wish, sonny." A voice said from behind where they sat. The owner of the voice walked around the three prisoners and stood before them.
"My name is Stone. I'm in charge around here." He carried a walking stick which he tapped JD on the shoulder with, "Do as you're told and you might survive."
Stone walked in front of Ezra, "This the owner of the map?"
Charlie, walking at his side, nodded, "Yep, that's him. Ain't he a dandy? Cain't see him lastin' long down the mine."
"Neither can I." Finally, Stone approached Vin, "This one looks strong."
The stick tapped against Vin's arm. The young man reacted instinctively, forgetting his own words of non-involvement. He snatched the stick, pulling Stone towards him, yanking the gun from the man's holster and pointing it against his head.
"Put your guns down; all of ya!" He yelled, while Ezra magically produced his derringer and JD snatched a rifle from an uncertain gunman.
Stone laughed coldly, "You won't get away, boys."
"Don't matter. At least we'll take a few of you out. Then maybe these folk'll have a chance." Vin replied calmly. He wasn't afraid of death as long as it wasn't at the end of a rope.
He took a swift glance at JD and Ezra, proud of them both, but sorry for getting them in such a mess.
Everyone stood still, the gunmen unsure of their next move, awaiting Stone's orders. The slaves afraid to move, seeing hope for the first time in many months. Vin was holding the ace, or thought he did, until a woman screamed.
"Put the gun down boys, otherwise I'll have to blow the head off this little girl."
Vin, still pointing the gun on Stone, turned to face the voice.
"Howdy boss." Stone grinned in relief.
"You fool! How did this happen?" The man asking the question was holding a tiny black girl against him, shoving the muzzle of a gun under her chin. His near black eyes turned to Vin, "It's up to you, son. I don't care about that worthless piece of shit you're holding hostage, but how would you like to have this little girl's death on your conscience?"
The girl's mother, being held by one of the gunmen, cried out hysterically, "Not my baby! Not Lily!"
Vin wasn't looking at the man, his eyes were focused on the beautiful child in his arms; the child was terrified. He wasn't the only one being torn apart by her wide, rich brown, eyes.
"I know Ezra, I know..." Vin loosened his hold on Stone and passed him the gun. Ezra and JD were quickly disarmed.
Stone, angry at being humiliated so easily, picked up a rifle, ready to smash the butt of it against Vin's skull. The young man flinched away from the impact, but nothing happened, because the leader of the gang, having freed the little girl, walked up and snatched the weapon out of Stone's hands,
"Fool! He can't work if he's dead! Get them shackled properly, then bring them over to my cabin."
Stone was doubly humiliated now. Once by the prisoners and now by Thomas Rafter, the owner of the mine. Someone was going to pay for it and as he glanced at the three young men having their arms shackled, he knew exactly was going to suffer.
They were led to the cabin nearest the corral. The building was in far better condition than the others. Inside, it was tidy, with a bunk bed and wash stand down one wall and the rest of the room being used as a small office, with weigh scales on the desk for any small deposits of silver to be assayed. Behind the desk, sat Thomas Rafter. He looked out of place, dressed smartly in a dark grey suit and without a trace of dust or dirt on him. Stone led them in, Charlie followed at the back and as a precaution, another gun man stood guard outside.
Rafter had been examining the old map, "You know, it would have been much easier to find this place, if I'd have owned this, instead of depending on hearsay and tales from old injuns and miners. Where did you get it?"
Ezra replied amicably, "Ah won it in a poker game off an old forty niner. It was the only thing of value he had."
"So you took it. That's what I like to see in a man. Someone without scruples."
Ezra was horrified to hear Rafter's description of him; was he so shallow? Maybe, before the altercation with Colonel Anderson and his army, maybe, before meeting up with Chris and the others. But not now. The old miner had insisted he take the map; determined to pay for his bets.
"What's wrong, Mr. Gambler, don't you like to hear the truth?"
"Ah only take off those who can afford it, sir... Unlike you, who takes off those who are already barren."
Vin was impressed by his friend's speech. Ezra had undoubtedly turned down the only chance he had of escaping the mine. And JD looked at him with even greater respect.
"My, my, a gambler with a conscience. How do you make a living?" Rafter said smugly, taunting the southerner.
"At least Ah can sleep at night."
"So do I. " Rafter replied, lighting a cigar and taking a moment to enjoy the taste. "What about you, Mr. Hero, do you gamble?"
"Not with lives."
Rafter laughed loudly, "Charlie, I think you've found a couple of saints! Goodness pours off them. I find it sickening. " Finally, he turned to the youngest member of the trio. The boy's eyes were full of anger; he looked ready for a fight.
"What's your name, boy?"
"None of your business, Mister!"
"Spunky. How refreshing after being blinded by their haloes." Rafter leaned over the desk, "Do you hate me, boy?"
"Yes! I hate anyone that treats people like you do!" JD took a step forward, his stance threatening. Charlie dragged him back. Rafter shook his head at the gunman; the boy was shackled, he could do no harm.
Rafter found it amusing to tease the youngster, there was so little to smile at in this hell hole of a mine. And, although the young men insisted they'd only ventured here because of the map, he wasn't so sure. The mule had been laden with digging equipment, but that could be a cover for their true intent. What if these men had been hired by the families of the missing people? Or, more importantly, would someone come looking for them?
The quiet young man certainly had a steely manner about him and didn't look as if he'd back down in a fight. And the gambler; maybe that was just an act. Rafter doubted they'd ever give up the truth. But the boy was an open book. A few taunts and threats would soon unlock his tongue.
"My, my, I change my mind, you're as uppity as your friends. " Rafter sniggered, "Not quite the adventure you had planned boy."
"We expected to meet up with some snakes, but only the slithering type, not those on two legs!"
Refusing to be riled by the boy's remark, Rafter continued, "What else did you expect to find?"
"Huh? A derelict mine; not slaves!"
"Slaves? they're not slaves."
"Then what do you call these, Mister?" JD shook the chains in front of Rafter, "I hate your kind. No respect for anyone 'cept yourself."
"How insightful." Rafter paused for a moment, his pencil thin moustache, twitching in a half smile, then he said, "I suppose someone will come looking for you?"
"Damn right, Mister! And when they do, they'll ..."
"JD!" Vin warned quietly, shooting the youngster a glaring look.
JD blushed, he'd broken the cardinal rule, he'd shown the other player his hand. Ezra had warned him again and again about that.
"They? I wonder who 'they' are. Your parents, maybe?" Rafter shrugged, "It doesn't matter. By the time they find this place, you'll be used up... or dead."
Vin wanted to yell, 'Don't bet on it!' but he held his tongue. There would be time for retribution, later. As long as they survived until Chris and the others arrived, and he had no doubt that they would.
Rafter was bored, he'd get no more information out of them. May as well put them to work.
"Stone, I think our boys need a lesson in work ethics."
"What about their things?"
"Put it with the other stuff. The horses can go in the remuda for the time being. They're fine looking animals, they should make a profit once we sell them."
"I was fixin' to keep the big black for myself ..." Stone said, "Bet he belongs to you, pretty boy. Don't worry, I'll take good care of him."
"Hope he throws you off and breaks yer neck." Was the only response Vin gave.
"I'll give you boys one warning." Rafter said as they were led away, "If you try to escape, I'll have no compunction about shooting one of the women .... or children. Whatever happens from now on will be on your conscience."
Vin accepted that the threat was real. He knew Ezra would abide by it, he only hoped JD was listening. He'd have words with him later. Chris would come for them, all they had to do was survive the camp and stay out of trouble for two, three weeks at most; surely they could do that.
"Jacob! Come over here!" Stone yelled to one of the men loading the rail buckets with ore.
"Yes, Suh..." The man shuffled as best he could towards Stone.
"I got three new boys for you . Teach 'em well and if dandy pants here, refuses to work, report right back to me. I'll soon give him reason to dance."
"Yes Suh.." Jacob was a small, stocky Negro. He was older than the three men; his dark curly hair, speckled with grey; his huge brown eyes full of goodness, like Nathan's.
"You boys ever done this kinda work before?"
"Ah can assure you, sir. Ah have never sullied my hands in dirt, as you can see by mah nails." Ezra held out his hands for inspection.
Vin chuckled, despite their situation. JD was furious.
"Then why the hell are we here, Ezra?" He asked savagely. "Who was goin' to do all the work?"
"Hell JD, don't ya have no idea 'bout nothin'? Why d'ya think he invited ya?" Vin replied, shaking his head with amusement.
"Damn you!" JD spluttered, "Damn the both of you!"
Vin wasn't quite sure what he'd done to offend the youngster, neither did he care. There were more important things to consider, like staying alive.
Jacob was also grinning, the three newcomers would certainly liven things up. "I guess I'd better explain how we do things around here. There's just one important rule. Don't go gettin' on the wrong side of Stone, he's real mean..."
"How long have you been here, Jacob?"
Jacob shrugged, as he looked at Vin in the dim lamplight, "Ain't sure. Three months I guess. I was workin' a bit of land, not far from here, when Stone and his gang came along and dragged me here."
"What about the others?"
"I know of one man that's been here for nearly a year; guess that's how long Rafter's been workin' it."
"Rafter the one in the suit?"
"Yep. Cruelest bastard I ever met!" Jacob said bitterly, "I thought I'd seen the last of slavery."
"So did we." Vin replied, his eyes adjusted to the shadowy light, wandered over to some of the children who were carrying water buckets. It was their job to keep the workers watered and fed. The tracker held out his hand,
"My name's Vin."
Jacob shook it firmly.
"This is Ezra and JD."
"Jacob... as you've heard. Listen, I know you boys'll be thinkin' about escape. But I gotta warn you. If you try and fail, Rafter'll kill you... then take it out on these poor folk."
"He's already warned us. Anyone managed to escape yet?"
"Not that I know of. One man did get away, but they brought him back next day; dead. Rafter said it was a warnin' to us all."
"Don't worry, we ain't plannin' on escapin'. We got people who'll come lookin' fer us. And when they find this place..."
"Don't mind if I hold my breath. Rafter and his men are good. What're yours like?"
Ezra smiled, " Does the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mean anythin' to you, sir?"
Chris kicked back the chair and stood up. From his vantage point outside the jail house he could see the length of the main street and the people on it going about their business. Occasionally, a curious glance was cast his way but few of the townsfolk acknowledged him. Protector or not, Chris knew there were those who did not care for 'his sort' nor wanted them in their town. He scanned the street, looking for one of his three companions, but they weren't to be seen. A diversion now would be good, the inactivity gave way to far more thinking time than Chris cared for. He missed the quiet bounty hunter; even in companionable silence, Vin could still silence Chris' demons.
The black clad man leant heavily on a door post, 'Where's that boy got to?' Perhaps the Cerrillos Hills had proved more than a match for the tracker? 'No.' Chris decided, Vin would find the mine easily enough. 'Now all he has to do is wait for JD and Ezra's enthusiasm to wane.'
A light pressure on his arm brought him back to the present.
"Chris?" Mary Travis called softly.
"Mary..." He answered, tipping his hat, wrong footed by her close proximity.
"I'm sorry I startled you. I wondered if you'd care to join the judge and I for dinner tonight?"
Chris brought himself some time by studying a group of young men loading provisions onto their wagon. He didn't want to sound rude, but he was in no mood for an intimate meal, "That's very kind of you, but..."
"Good." She quipped, cutting him off completely and disarming him with a smile, "Could you be at the restaurant at seven?"
Chris stared hard at the ground, giving her a curt nod.
"I'll see you then Chris. Good afternoon."
Chris tipped his hat again, "Mary." He watched her walk away towards her office, wishing he'd been more assertive when he'd turned her invitation down. He sighed heavily, at least worrying about the forthcoming meal would take his mind off Vin and Co.
He turned and walked over to the seat outside the jail house and let his mind slip back. Way past meeting the six men he now shared his life with; back to the homestead nestled in the valley; raising horses and corn with Sarah; hoping to raise more sons for Adam to play with. The memory caught in his heart, rekindling his love for her and the pain of her loss. No one had touched his heart as she had, no one could make him feel so loved. This woman who meant more to him than life itself. The pain doubled; his wife and child, whom he'd promised to protect. Now they were both gone, taken from him by a band of killers who'd burned his home to the ground.
He remembered the last time he saw them, outside the homestead, waving to him as he and Buck rode away. 'Love you' She'd mouthed. And that was the last time he'd felt at peace. It was a day that part of him died. He steered clear of the 'if only's' , they'd almost killed him too many times. He had to accept the past, but to purge his soul he needed redemption. He thought he'd found it when he'd confronted Cletus Fowler, but he was only part of the story; Chris somehow knew that his true nemesis was still out there, laughing at him.
Now he lived his dark days in this two bit town, tending the townsfolk like a shepherd with a reluctant flock. For the life of him he didn't know why he stayed, or did he? Perhaps it was the companionship of the other lost souls that rooted him. The six men that looked upon him as their leader accepted him for what he was, even Buck, a longtime friend. He and Buck had been like brothers once, he couldn't give him that anymore. Chris sank deeper into his depression. He felt the tears gathering.
He'd had such hopes and dreams; now they taunted him. He'd been a fool to believe in them; a fool to have left his family alone that night. He slammed his fist into the wall beside him, gasping at the sudden pain that had the desired effect. He brushed the bloodied splinters from his hand and blinked back the tears. Would life get any easier? He scanned
the townsfolk close by; all had their heads down and were scurrying to their intended destinations. If they'd seen his outburst they were too afraid to show it. Good.